Filmmaker Tom Shepard challenges misconceptions about LGBT refugees and asylum seekers and highlights their unique struggles fleeing persecution in his film UNSETTLED
After hearing stories of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers' treacherous journey to resettlement while volunteering, Shepard was compelled to share the realities of the process in his documentary UNSETTLED. GOOD DOCS spoke with him about his discoveries while making the film, the emotional moments, and his predictions for the future of LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S.. Interview conducted by Samuel Rubin.
What prompted or instigated your interest in asylum under a humanitarian crisis?
In 2013 or 14, I was feeling some complacency in the Queer community in the LGBTQ community around the Bay Area where I live. This was at the time when the marriage equality movement was steamrolling toward the Supreme Court. There was a sense that for some queer people, life was getting better...Yet, the conditions on the ground in many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, were getting worse. That almost seemed like an inverse to what was happening in the West.
I started doing some volunteer work at a refugee resettlement organization called Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS). I had asked if they were interested in potentially partnering because they were the first organization to get money from the U.S. State Department to resettle LGBTQ refugees. They were very, very protective and very cautious, understandably, with their clients, but they said that they would love to and that they needed a volunteer. I volunteered for about six months and that's when I started meeting people, hearing stories, and connecting with folks. Out of that work, I met two clients, two refugees who were working through JFCS. That's how the project started.
This was in the Obama years when the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. was at an all time high. Obama was considering even greater accommodations to the Syrian refugee crisis at that time. There were refugees who were waiting to be resettled in the world during this incredible migration crisis or hopeful that the U.S. was going to have open doors.
When you started volunteering, did you have the idea of making a documentary film or was it just an individual sense of wanting to help?
No, I was very much hoping that a project could come out of it, but when I was actually doing the volunteer work, I didn't know.
What do you think is uniquely special about the LGBTQ refugee experience that was important for you to highlight in the film?
Traditionally in the U.S., the refugee resettlement model is based on families. If there's an Iraqi family who's fleeing the Middle East and they come to the Bay Area, they'll immediately be connected into the Iraqi community in the diaspora. If you're a gay Iraqi person and you flee. The last people, often, that you want to see are other Iraqi people because you're concerned that you'll face the same sort of hatred and vitriol.
I learned quickly that LGBTQ refugees are at much higher risk for isolation, depression, untreated trauma and not being able to get those initial chokeholds in the culture. That then led to this question of who's stepping forward to meet the needs, the unique needs of queer refugees? At the time we started the film, very few people were. There were very few organizations that understood these differences.
It seems like the sort of refugee resettlement community are in one silo, and immigrant rights community are in one silo, and LGBT rights folks are in another silo and they aren't always talking to each other. We wondered if there'd be an opportunity to make film that would be intersexual and intersectional enough to kind of allow these groups to talk to each other in a more productive way. That came up pretty early and that's why we think it might actually be a really useful educational tool.
You mentioned earlier that you notice at the change of complacency among the queer community. Based on the experience making the film, have you been able to see the LGBTQ community embracing its own asylum seekers? Or do you think there’s still a lot more work to do?
There's so much room for improvement and training. In terms of the traditional refugee resettlement models across the country, many of them have not worked with queer refugees. It's only recently that queer refugees were actively being resettled. Using the film in training situations where the first people of contact have some sensitivity training and understand the unique needs of LGBTQ refugees is quite critical.
On the other side of it, I think lawyers don't realize how relatively easy it is to apply for asylum, to go through the application process. For asylum seekers who don't have their status when they cross the border and they get into the U.S., it's critical to also train lawyers in those first months, [so they can] take on clients and potentially save lives. Some of that has been happening at the border, but LGBTQ asylum seekers more often are coming in different ways to different places in the country. Being able to train lawyers to adjudicate the asylum claims is important.
Generally, there are a number of opportunities. I just think most Americans don't know the story. They've read about the crisis at the border, they've read about refugees and the Syrian refugee crisis, but they've never met a refugee in person. There's huge potential when Americans can connect and humanize the lived experiences of queer refugees. That's when people are going to care enough to change the systems to be more supportive and more accommodating.
Did you meet the four asylum seekers in the film through the same organization around the same time? How, how did you connect with every single one of them and decide that the study was important for that film?
First of all, I should say that at the time and even now, very few LGBTQ refugees are willing to share their story publicly. Some of that is fear, fear about their own situation. Most folks that we met are survivors and have experienced significant trauma if not torture. When you land in a new place, to have people with cameras come see you is understandably quite scary and, in some cases, off-putting.
Who we gravitated toward was based on their openness and their willingness to share their stories. That was the case with all four of the folks that we met. I did meet them all roughly at the same time. The two refugees, Suhbi from Syria and Junior from Congo, I met through JFCS and the two women asylum seekers I met through Melanie Nathan, who runs a small organization called Africa Human Rights Coalition, and she was following their stories.
The other thing is that, sometimes, refugees and asylum seekers are fearful, not only because of their own story, but they're worried about the safety of family and community members back home. They’re worried that if the story gets out, if it gets out online, those folks will potentially be put in harm's way. They have to be sort of holding their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their family members in their home countries too. There were a lot of issues around access in the film for very understandable reasons.
In UNSETTLED you showcase through the wonderful human beings how hard and heartbreaking asylum can be. Did you have to establish any personal boundaries of intimacy during the filming project? There is a moment in the film that they literally had to step off camera because of how hard it was for them. Did you have any conversation about the protocol that you wanted to follow?
I think more than any specific protocol, I just tried to spend a lot of time with them building trust, building rapport, and helping them understand what our intentions were, by showing them other films that I had made and talking about just how delicate and vulnerable those moments were. I think they understood that.
But at the same time, when you're asking someone to regurgitate a traumatic story, there's always the risk of repetition of trauma and triggering that happens. Certainly, I think that happened a few times. We just understood too that it was important to just have a lot of patience, a lot of sensitivity and just really being present for everything.
After we filmed, we would continue to talk about how they were doing and just stay very connected to them. They didn't know anybody when they got here. So, for many of them, particularly Cheyenne and Marie and Junior, I think they felt like our film crew became sort of allies to them, that they were there to witness, that we cared about their story, that it mattered what was happening. Even by showing up, we were providing some level of support. I think they all felt that to some degree.
It's this tricky thing because we can't give them money. As you saw in the film, there are moments where they're pretty desperate financially. As a filmmaker, you can't give your subjects money because then you have a potential of a real conflict of interest in terms of the audience. If film is going to be on PBS and the audience knows that the subjects had been paid, they may wonder ‘are they saying or performing things on camera because they're being paid or is this their actual experience?’ There are some journalistic rules, ethical rules that are very, very difficult. I hadn't worked in a film quite like this one where their needs were so desperate.
That was something unique to this filmmaking process. What else was unique to this filmmaking process? What did you learn about the U.S. asylum process and how it applies directly to LGTBQ community that you did not expect?
One thing that I learned is that the vetting process for both refugees and asylum seekers for the United States is extraordinarily extensive. You heard Donald Trump start using the term ‘extreme vetting.’ I learned that [extreme vetting] has always been the case for refugees to be adjudicated through the United Nations High Commissioner on refugees and then to go through an incredible set of background tests. Then, they come to the U.S. and they basically have to go through another set of vetting for the United States. There is this notion that people like refugees are easily getting into their countries of resettlement and that is completely wrong.
Then on the asylum side, I couldn't believe how long the process was. You can't get a work permit as an asylum seeker in the U.S. until six months after the date of your application of your asylum. It takes most people a long time to find a lawyer or a pro bono lawyer who can handle their case and then actually get it filed. Then it takes six more months before you can get a work permit, a work authorization permit. What do those people do? I was quite shocked that the U.S. says, ‘come to the U.S., we're going to offer asylum, but you can't work here.’ People have to either work illegally under the table and jeopardize their asylum status, or they just have to be at the mercy of the generosity of strangers. It's a really, really precarious position to put people in.
It took Shannon Murray three years from the moment that they applied for their asylum to having their final, the final response to their interview, the approval of their asylum case. It's not a quick and easy process the way that some Americans might think.
As you mentioned several times, you were witnessing what these pressures looked like during the Obama administration, and that was at the peak number of admissions. We're able to expect such a drastic decline in refugee admissions and making those requirements more difficult and more narrow in order to limit the number of admissions and make it harder for people to be able to survive here?
It's actually shocking. From our vantage point when we started the film, quite a lot of refugees were coming into the U.S.. I think it was over one hundred thousand per year. In the Bay Area and with LGBT refugees, there was very little research. There was very little infrastructure. People couldn't find housing for folks. It was crazy. People were bouncing around like beach balls.
Then, Trump gets in office. These organizations are now building up infrastructure. They now have all these people that want to help, all these people donating money, all these people becoming housing hosts. But now, Trump has basically reduced the number of refugees by 80 percent… Two months ago, there were zero refugees that came in and his administration had proposed in 2020 to have no new refugees coming. It's unprecedented what's happening politically right now. I would say above all other things that the film can do, hopefully we can make an impact on the upcoming election.
Talking about the election and talking about the future, what do you think can happen in the future for LGBTQ refugees, especially if Trump reelected?
I'm afraid, I'm fearful. The impeachment process, the assassination of Solemani in Iran, these stories are now going to be front and center. I think Donald Trump is a master of all disrupting things to serve his own interests. My fear is that the stories of and the experiences of LGBT refugees are going to be lost in this debate.
My hope is that there's an opportunity for people to understand how dramatically things are changed for refugees in this country. We've had such a history going back decades and decades of being a safe harbor for refugees. This has really changed under the Trump administration and people need to know that.
What do you hope to be the main focus of the cation after watching UNSETTLED, whether it's at a university or in a community group? What is the premise of a group discussion to be had after watching the film?
I think one of the big questions is how do you welcome an outsider? How do you welcome the stranger? How do you get over the stereotypes that people have about who refugees are and who asylum seekers are? As the people in the film say, Americans think that refugees and asylum seekers are criminals, or they're here to steal jobs from other Americans, or that they were able to somehow get a freebie. I think when you watch the film, you understand so much more clearly what it is to be a person who has to flee persecution.
I think people assume that you get to the United States, or Canada or Australia, and everything's going to be fine. But in fact, it's just the beginning of a really, really difficult journey. I think that would maybe be the big thing [to discuss.]
As you see in the film, a lot of LGBT refugees are being resettled in cities like San Francisco and New York because of their LGBTQ friendly communities. Yet, those are the hardest cities for anyone to relocate. Even middle-class Americans have a very hard time moving to and living in San Francisco. Imagine what it is like for a refugee who has a refugee benefit of $350 a month. How are they going to afford that and how are they going to survive in these hyper-competitive cities? Who's going to come forward and really help make that journey a little bit easier?
Anybody can help. Refugees need friends, they need people, they need therapists. Asylum-seekers need lawyers, but they also need connection to community and connection to other people. I think the film underscores both of those things: the hard resources that are needed to support the very concrete needs, but also the more subjective needs and psychological needs and community needs. When people see the film, they want to know how to help. We definitely want there to be calls to action across the board for those kinds of needs.
What you just outlined are some of these reasons why anyone should care about this film, regardless of their country of origin, sexual identity or orientation because those are universal things that so many people can empathize and connect with.
Is there anything that you would like to add or if there are any other questions that you think I am missing?
We worked with a high school in Marin County at the independent private high school. They were doing a whole semester on the refugee crisis and when we showed the film, there were several students that wanted to do their practicum on helping build educational materials for the film. We worked with them for about 10 weeks, and they helped us create a viewer's guide.
We've been a bit surprised by how much high school age students are responding to the film. I do think there’s an opportunity to distribute the film strongly to independent high schools and private high schools as well as universities.